In our roster evaluations of the Buffalo Bills' defensive linemen - nose tackles and defensive ends alike - we've reached a couple of ironclad conclusions. First, the Bills are going to scheme around their best player, defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Second, in order to accomplish that, they need better supporting defensive line play to compensate for what will essentially be a hybrid defensive scheme.
Buffalo, which will still likely be a base 3-4 defense under coordinator George Edwards, will continue to play Williams in roles not traditional to that scheme. Williams will largely play one-technique (off the center's shoulder) and three technique (off the guard's outside shoulder) to maximize his quickness and penetration abilities.
From there, the Bills need to improve their linebacker play - and an easy way to do that schematically is to play more two-gap defensive linemen, wherein the two linemen playing alongside Williams are responsible for two gaps along the line. This will minimize the gap responsibilities of a Bills linebacker corps that was overwhelmed in 2010, and allow them to make more plays on the football.
With a little help from Mark Gaughan at The Buffalo News, who in his much better, much more informative breakdown of the defensive line reaches similar conclusions, we'll discuss the two biggest factors into achieving better results in their defensive front seven.
First, it is important to delineate between Buffalo's contributing defensive linemen which are better served in a one-gap, penetrating capacity, and which were brought in to play two gaps.
One-gap linemen (best fit): Kyle Williams, Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson, Marcus Stroud
Two-gap linemen (best fit): Torell Troup, Alex Carrington
Most people assume that Edwards, a veteran of Baltimore's 3-4, was brought in to play a traditional defensive end role. The Ravens, however, have never been a true, traditional 3-4, and much of Edwards' work prior to his arrival in Buffalo was in more of a one-gap capacity. He'd had experience doing both, however, which immediately put him a step ahead of the Bills' incumbent linemen, and made him an important signing.
In Gaughan's piece, he spoke a bit to Edwards' struggles setting the edge against the run early in the season, when the Bills were still square-peg-round-holing it with the 3-4:
The Bills did a rotten job of setting the edge on runs to the outside, an issue for the linebackers and the line. Edwards seemed to struggle early with this, as well. Teams like New England had great success getting the Bills' front seven moving and then cutting back. The Jets got wide on the Bills almost at will.
That's why we listed Edwards - who is on the lower end of the spectrum when discussing prototypical five-technique defensive end size and length - as a best-fit in a one-gap capacity. It is pretty clear, however, that the Bills still plan to use him in a two-gap role, even if only on occasion as they stay multiple-front.
Gaughan also points out that Stroud spent most of his season playing either five-technique (a two-gap role) or four-technique, where he's lined up directly across an offensive tackle (similar to how a zero-technique nose tackle lines up directly across from a center). It's no secret that Stroud struggled in 2010 - Gaughan also labels Stroud a possible roster casualty this off-season - and his best years came as a one-technique player in a 4-3. We've put him in the one-gap category next to Williams and Johnson, who is a player with a similar skill set to Williams.
That leaves last year's second- and third-round picks, Troup and Carrington, as the only true two-gap defensive linemen on the roster. Gaughan features an interview with Bills defensive line coach Giff Smith, who (paraphrasing) talked about Carrington's tendency to be a bit robotic and struggles understanding when to disengage from blocks - a hugely critical factor for a two-gap defender - as well as Troup's need to get better at recognizing blocks and knowing how to attack them.
Like Chan Gailey, Smith was happy with the way Buffalo's two developmental linemen progressed in 2010 - and clearly, if they can earn much more playing time than they did as rookies (Gaughan has Troup down for 27% of defensive snaps, and Carrington for 19%), the Bills will be off to a good start as they try to complement and scheme around Williams. If either player suffers a developmental setback, or gets injured, the Bills don't have any pure two-gappers to fill the void.
In Edwards, the Bills have a versatile, heady veteran that they can plug in anywhere based on the front they're using. In Johnson, they have a steady understudy to Williams that did enough to warrant coming back next season. But if they can't get better two-gap play from their defensive linemen, they'll have many of the same problems they faced in 2010, even if they change up personnel at linebacker.
Troup and Carrington were smart picks in the 2010 NFL Draft, even if their impact was not immediate. Their development will be critical to defensive improvement next season - but it's abundantly clear that as the Bills build around Williams, more two-gap reinforcements are needed.